When we talk about growing communities, which is a very common topic in hobby gaming, people usually refer to growing numbers in a community. There’s another important kind of growth as well: maturity.
As much as we love our games and the people we play with, there are still some flaws. Hobby games, like RPGs and TCGs and board games and miniatures games, are wonderful - as expressions of design and creativity, and as catalysts for building relationships, from individual to worldwide. It’s worth it to love these games and their communities despite these flaws, and any effort to address and fix any flaws makes our great community greater.
Here we’re focusing on a pretty self-apparent flaw in gaming: gender imbalance. Men vastly outnumber women, not only among players and consumers, but among designers and publishers as well. It’s plain to see, and the root of some negative stereotypes. It erodes the dignity of our community and passion.
There is hope though, and a way forward. We’re lucky to have many pioneering women who have proven that this hobby isn’t just for men, and that female voices are just as important to the hobby.
One person who is improving our community with her success is the savvy Sophie Gravel. Starting out with game distributor Filosophia based in Montreal, she published many hobby board game standards in French for Canadian game fans. Eventually acquiring the influential American game importer Z-Man Games, they merged to become F2Z Entertainment and welcomed other notable publishers like Plaid Hat Games into their fold.
This level of success is significant, especially in a hobby space. When the French conglomerate Asmodee took notice and acquired F2Z Entertainment and its volume of hobby classics. Gravel, though, didn’t want to join the board game Death Star. With some talented friends from F2Z, Gravel broke off and started over again, with an appropriately named new venture: Plan B Games.
Now Plan B Games has fixed itself in the hobby as a source of great games. Running multiple imprints like Next Move Games, Pretzel Games, and Eggertspiele; Plan B publishes some of the hobby’s most loved games. Century: Spice Road has become one of the go-to crossover board games, and Great Western Trail earned a place in heavy strategy gamers’ hearts. Showing a streak of independence, Gravel has made each of her companies into respected tastemakers.Sophie Gravel - Image Credit: www.teilzeithelden.de
The feat of designing great hobby board games is open to women as well, as demonstrated by the brilliant early success of Elizabeth Hargrave. Where many designers crank out dozens of games during their careers with moderate notoriety, Hargrave shot straight to the top. Her second published game, and first published big-box game, was the famous Wingspan. Soon after Stonemaier Games published Wingspan, it was already obvious that it was a hit. It was the talk of the hobby, selling out quickly.
This actually put Hargrave’s opus into a tricky spot. One of the biggest, if not the biggest, awards in board gaming had noticed of Wingspan. The Spiel des Jahres is an independent award given yearly since the early 80s, and has been the honor of some of the best games ever designed. Wingspan was nominated for the Spiel’s “Connoisseur” Game Of The Year, while it was sold out. This untimely hype train can spell doom for games. The hobby press gets people excited for a game, but few players are unable to acquire it to play (unless they pay exorbitant aftermarket prices). By the time the publisher is able to get more copies made and distribute them, the excitement for the game may fade away and the retail supply chain is stuck with thousands games no one wants.
Wingspan successfully rode the storm out. Hargrave’s game not only proved to have staying power to remain a big seller, but went on to win the Spiel des Jahres for 2019. This high praise from Germany - the birthplace of the hobby - cemented Wingspan as a classic strategy game. Hargrave continues to design successful board games, as well. With the recent Mariposas, Hargrave reinforces a leitmotif of interesting biology and the stories of the natural world. Elizabeth Hargrave - Photo Credit: Maja Hoock
So, we’ve seen that women can be stars at making games, but there’s the other side of the equation: playing them. Enter Melissa DeTora, one of the best Magic: The Gathering players in the world. DeTora was the first woman to achieve a Top 8 in 2013’s second Pro Tour tournament. That means that, out of 329 professional and semi-professional Magic players, she performed the best on the first day of competition. On the second day, DeTora and the other 7 top-performing players competed in an elimination bracket for the grand prize. Among the Top 8 in that tournament were also some of the strongest professional players in Magic at the time, such as Ben Stark, Gerry Thompson, and professional poker player Eric Froelich. While DeTora earned 6th place overall on day two, after playing against the eventual winner Tom Martell, the Pro Tours are one of the most competitive Magic tournaments and finishing Top 8 is a high honor.
The publisher of Magic: The Gathering, Wizards of the Coast, knows talent when they see it, and asked DeTora to join the development team in 2017. Many professional Magic players graduate from tournament success to working for Wizards of the Coast. Mostly, Magic professional players are hired to either design new cards and sets, or rigorously test new sets before release. DeTora joined at the right time, too. At the time, Wizards had made some errors in testing their cards before publication - most notably, they let the notorious Copy Cat combo escape their playtesting. In response, DeTora and others started the Play Design team to more rigorously test cards, especially with highly competitive tournaments in mind. DeTora’s experience has helped Magic during its recent record-breaking growth.Melissa DeTora - Photo Credit: Melissa DeTora
Wizards of the Coast is one of the biggest companies in gaming, not just because of Magic: The Gathering, but also because they publish the eminent Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. D&D itself has a long and winding history, and one person who has left an indelible mark is one Lisa Stevens. Before her involvement in Dungeons & Dragons, she has already had a professional career in role-playing games, including an innovative medieval RPG called Ars Magica, and a 90s breakout hit Vampre: The Masquerade. Soon, though, she moved to the fledgling Wizards of the Coast in 1991 and helped launch Magic: The Gathering in 1993. Leveraging her editing and print publishing experience, she started the Duelist magazine, which was crucial for the nascent Magic community.
Wizards of the Coast acquired Dungeons & Dragons in 1997 and released its third edition in 2000. After her career at Wizards, Stevens launched a new company in 2002, Paizo Publishing. Initially Paizo was created to publish two important D&D magazines, appropriately called "Dungeon" and "Dragon." However, Wizards retired these print magazines in 2007, taking them online; and in 2008 they published the controversial fourth edition of D&D.
While Wizards tried to interpret changing play styles in the age of the internet, and revive a flagging brand, the fourth edition of D&D proved to be a disappointment to longtime fans. Stevens and everyone at Paizo, though, saw all this as an opportunity. They released their magnum opus, the role-playing game Pathfinder, in 2009. Pathfinder answered two needs in the RPG community. Firstly, it preserved the Open Gaming License that Wizards invented then retired; this let 3rd party designers and creators publish their own RPG content for those rules. Secondly, it refreshed the fan-favorite third edition of D&D under a new banner. Many long time D&D fans who regarded fourth edition D&D as “video game-y” happily made the jump to Pathfinder.
Pathfinder and Paizo continue to be successful throughout the 2010s in Stevens’ hands. For several years after Pathfinder was released, it regularly outsold Dungeons & Dragons. A second edition of Pathfinder released in 2019, and a fun sci-fi version called Starfinder was released in 2017. As Stevens is gradually retiring in 2020, she made a significant point - large companies don’t get to dictate how audiences use and interact with their products. Dungeons & Dragons and the RPG scene in whole do not solely belong to their publishers and copyright holders - they’re part of a conversation with the people who buy, play, and love them.Lisa Stevens - Photo Credit: Paizo, Inc
The love of these games is, naturally, something everyone has access to. Many women are happy to demonstrate this, from Suzanne Sheldon with the Dice Tower to Felicia Day and her many nerdy exploits. Here, though, we’ll consider Brittanie Boe, a board game fan who has directed her immense energy into developing her own brand and has focused on inclusivity in the community. Starting out as a volunteer for game publisher Cryptozooic, she demonstrated a game at PAX so effectively that the game sold out that weekend. This brought her to the attention of one of the biggest companies in hobby games, GTS Distribution. Leveraging her marketing experience and sheer charisma, she managed GTS’ Gamewire brand, connecting with game designers, game publishers and game fans.
After 5 years of industry networking and fan outreach, Boe started her own brand, Be Bold Games (cleverly taking after her nickname, BeBo). Managing her six-person social media team, Be Bold offers quick how-to-play video via YouTube, community development over social media channels on Twitter and Instagram, as well as in-depth board game articles on the main Be Bold Games website. Making great strides in improving our hobby, Boe uses her brand and platform to reiterate how important inclusivity is to communities.
We’re fortunate to have people like Boe working directly to help our hobby grow for all walks of life. Brittanie Boe - Photo Credit: Brittanie Boe
Women all over are helping prove that inclusion and diversity should always be one of the most pivotal goals. As we work to grow the Hobby Game community its important to bring attention to those who have shown that gaming is no longer an exclusive club. Gravel, Hargrave, DeTora, Stevens and Boe show us all an important lesson - that every human has something to contribute to our hobby - and listening to them and noting their contributions without prejudice betters us all.